India’s moment of reckoning is about to arrive as the kick-off to the 17th edition of the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup approaches.
The Blue Tigers have been drawn in Group A of the 24-team continental showpiece alongside hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE), Thailand and Bahrain.
With the teams now wrapping up their final preparations for the tournament, Goal takes a look at how Group A is shaping up.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Hosting the tournament for the second time in history, UAE are searching for their maiden Asian crown. Coached by former AC Milan, Inter Milan and Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni, the hosts will be looking to take inspiration from their 1996 campaign in front of their home fans where they secured the runners-up position.
The top-ranked team in the group (79), UAE are on paper the favourites to take the top spot in Group A.
While they have left no stone unturned in their preparations for the tournament, it hasn’t gone all according to plan for the hosts who will have to make do without the services of their star playmaker Omar Abdulrahman.
Zaccheroni has been coming under increasing pressure after the team’s dismal showing in a spate of recent friendlies where they have tasted defeats against Trinidad and Tobago as well as Venezuela.
The Italian coach had won the AFC Asian Cup title with Japan in 2011 but he has a tough ask in front of him if he is to lead UAE to continental glory.
Key players - Ismail Al Hammadi, Khalid Eisa
The War Elephants are making a return to the Asian Cup after a 12-year absence and for the first time since they co-hosted tournament in 2007.
Once among the top teams in the continent as shown by their third-place finish in the 1972 edition, Thailand have failed to pack a punch at the Asian Cup ever since with five group-stage exits. What’s more, they have only scored a single goal combined in all their previous campaigns put together.
However, Milovan Rajevac’s men can take some comfort from their qualification campaign where they topped their group in the second qualifying round.
The side are just coming off the back of a slightly disappointing AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Suzuki Cup campaign where they crashed out of the semi-finals after going down to Malaysia.
Despite that setback, the Thais will fancy their chances of securing a passage to the knockouts as the one of the top two teams of Group A.
Key players – Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerasil Dangda
Bahrain, or the Reds, are making their fifth consecutive appearance in the competition and the sixth overall. The country’s best-ever result in the Asian Cup came in the 2004 edition held in China where they secured a fourth-place finish.
Unlike Thailand, Bahrain had to wait until the third round of qualification to secure their tickets to the UAE.
Coached by Miroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic, Bahrain have been rigorous in their preparations for the Asian Cup and have played a spate of international friendlies since achieving qualification.
A loss to Syria and draws against China and Philippines were followed by a comprehensive win over Myanmar. Since they were beaten 1-2 by Oman in November, Bahrain have turned on the heat with comprehensive victories against Tajikistan, Lebanon and DPR Korea where they have scored 10 goals in total without conceding a single one.
With the run of form they find themselves in, Bahrain will fancy their chances of taking one of the top two spots in Group A.
Key players – Abdulla Yusuf Helal, Ali Madan
The Blue Tigers are back in the competition for the fourth time in history and the first time since their group-stage exit in the 2011 edition.
Once one of the powerhouses of Asian football as evidenced by their runners-up finish in the 1964 edition, it has been a spectacular fall of grace for India who were ranked as low as 173 as recently as in 2015.
They have since made some progress under Englishman Stephen Constantine and come into the tournament with their ranking back among the top 100 (97). In fact, India are the second highest ranked team in the group behind hosts UAE.
However, Constantine and his men will know that the rankings tell only half the story. While UAE will be considered the Group A favourites, India have it all to do if they are to progress ahead of Thailand and Bahrain.
What could work in their favour is the provision of four best third-placed teams also making it into the knockouts.
India too, like Bahrain, booked their tickets for the 2019 edition after topping their group in the third round. The team is currently struggling for goals up top but have shown a bit of defensive prowess of late with shutouts against China and Oman along with a narrow 1-2 defeat to Jordan.
Key players – Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu